Gary Ferguson has written 27 books on Science and Nature, including a book called “The Eight Master Lessons of Nature: What Nature Teaches us About Living Well in the World.” Gary’s most recent book is called “Full Ecology: Repairing Our Relationship with the Natural World.” Garry has created an organization called Full Ecology with a cultural psychologist named Mary Clare, who is not only has co-founder and partner, but also his wife. Gary describes full ecology as an idea and an organization dedicated to breaking down the walls between the human psyche and the natural world. Together, he and Mary Clare offer workshops, retreats, keynotes and continuing professional development to help individuals, families and or organizations traverse life’s changes with integrity and vision.
In this interview, we discuss how to renew your relationship with nature and how to deepen it. We also talk about things like the many, many hundreds and thousands of miles that Gary has spent in Yellowstone National Park. We discuss what he has learned in that including beauty, community, relationships, grief, and mystery.
“It is no wonder that we are starving to rediscover a connection with the natural world.”
This week on the School for Good Living Podcast:
- What is the objective case and what does it teach us about the world?
- What Gary has learned in his thousands of miles walked in Yellowstone National Park.
- What Gary has learned about grief and how it helps him to empathize with others.
- How things in nature, including humans, react to the forces of trauma.
- How we can make space for grief in our lives and what that can do for us.
- What is full ecology and what does it teach us about what’s inside us and between one another.
Brilliant Miller [00:00:41] Looking around at the world today, a world of skyscrapers, superhighways, melting ice caps, and rampant deforestation, it is easy to feel that humanity has actively severed its ties with nature. It is no wonder that we are starving to rediscover a connection with the natural world. These words were written by my guest today. His name is Gary Ferguson. Gary has written 27 books on science and nature, including a book which I asked him a lot about in this interview, a book called The Eight Master Lessons of Nature What Nature Teaches us About Living Well in the World. And I also asked Garry to tell me about his most recent book, one called Full Ecology Repairing Our Relationship with the Natural World. Garry has created an organization called Full Ecology with a cultural psychologist named Mary Clare, who is not only his co-founder and partner but his wife. And he describes full ecology as an idea and an organization dedicated to breaking down the walls between the human psyche and the natural world. Together, he and Mary Clare offer workshops, retreats, keynotes, and continuing professional development to help individuals, families, and or organizations traverse life’s changes with integrity and vision. I was really interested to talk to Garry because many years ago I did a program with a teacher who’s been very important to me, someone named Jack Canfield, and in that program, I created a life purpose for myself. And in that life purpose, there was a statement that seemed to come out of nowhere. To me, it was a surprise, even to myself, about the importance of a verdant world but a green and living world. I didn’t know, like I said, exactly where that came from or what to make of it. But I suspect that I, like you, yearn for, enjoy, and appreciate being in nature, connecting with nature, but also feeling somehow separate from it. So this interview and these books that Gary has written are a really great opportunity. I hope for you to learn a little bit more about how to renew your relationship with nature, and how to deepen it. In this conversation, we talk about a lot of things, including the many, many, many, many hundreds and thousands of miles, even that Gary has spent in Yellowstone National Park. What he has learned is that we talk about beauty, we talk about community, we talk about relationships, we talk about grief, and we talk about mystery. So a lot of big concepts. And Gary puts them in ways that are both beautiful and practical in his writing and I think in this conversation. So I hope you enjoy it. You can learn more about Gary and his work at WildWords.net or at FullEcology.com. So with that, please enjoy this conversation with my friend Gary Ferguson. Gary, welcome to the School for Good Living.
Gary Ferguson [00:13:31] Thank you, Brilliant. It’s great to be here with you.
Brilliant Miller [00:13:34] Will you tell me, please, what is life about?
Gary Ferguson [00:13:38] Oh, my goodness. Well, I would say that and I’m basing this on my experience in the natural world and thinking and writing about the natural world. I think. I think life is about relationships. And I think even writing is about relationships. It’s either celebrating or building or mourning the loss of a relationship. And I think I think that is really the the the stage I stand on when I think about going through my life.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:08] Mm-hmm. And I realize that however one answers that question, inevitably it’s one’s life experience that informs their response so much. And I want to start with an experience that you’ve written about. You were 13 years old. You were at home in northern Indiana. You had a box of highway maps and $150 you earned from shoveling snow and ice. Is your bicycle a purple C or string stingray? What’s going on in this moment and what happens immediately afterward?
Gary Ferguson [00:14:41] Well, when I was about nine, so several years earlier, my parents had given me money to go into an, I think it was a Walgreens pharmacy to get a comic book, which I did every so often. But I got to the pharmacy and I went to the magazine stand, and instead of the comic books, my eyes landed on a magazine called Colorado Rocky Mountain West. And it was just stuffed full of beautiful photos of the Rocky Mountain states. And I was living in a very topographically challenging area of the world, northern Indiana, the so-called Rust Belt at that time. And I was so struck and felt so at home and in kinship with what I was seeing in those pages, I decided that one way or another I was going to get there. So with the money and the maps and everything, I proceeded to call my parents to the couch in the living room and lay out my maps and describe this grand plan I had for that summer to ride my purple seres stingray about 1200 miles to the front range of Colorado and assure them that I could be back in time for school to start in the fall after Labor Day. And inexplicably, they said, no, I wasn’t going to do that. So I’m I still have some hard feelings about that. But I sort of get their concerns now that I’m a little older. But I was just very, very driven to get it to that level of wildness.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:08] And, you know, I think of John Muir saying the mountains are calling and I must go.
Gary Ferguson [00:16:14] Indeed, indeed.
Brilliant Miller [00:16:16] Bruce, call. And he did it. And in your book, The Eight Master Lessons of Nature, What Nature Teaches Us About Living Well in the world. You cover so much. And I love this book, by the way. Thank you for writing it. It’s very beautiful. Thank you. One of the things that I want to ask you about is that you say in this book that nature has a special place in our brains and our relationships. I’m curious if you’ll say a little more about that generally, but then more specifically for yourself, what’s the place that nature has played or continues to play in your life?
Gary Ferguson [00:16:48] Well, like so many kids and perhaps all kids, if given the chance when I was young, even though I was in that fairly developed well-ordered place called Northern Indiana with its topographical challenges and whatnot, I still was drawn to nature, whether it was the hedgerows along the cornfields or the ditches along the roads. I used to ride that purple stingray on what was filled with cattails or even my mother’s little postage-stamp-size garden. Just spotting nature tends to pull us into it. And Amerson said that one of the reasons we’re so attracted is because the same power that we’re seeing is in our eyes, looking out at itself, basically, that we’re connected and we recognize something of that in ourselves. And I think that makes, you know, just from a biological standpoint, of course, that’s true. We are nature to where the end result of lots and lots, although not that there isn’t more evolution to come. But we’re at the end of a lot of millions of years of fine-tuning, just like a mountain lion or a wolf or an orca or a dolphin. And we have some essential skills that we share with the natural world, the superpowers of nature. What makes it able to not just survive but thrive are our superpowers, too. And one of the things that I’ve tried to devote my life personally and some of my writing as well, is this notion of the kind of restoring and healing that artificial split that has been going on off and on, certainly for the last 500 years, since basically the Enlightenment in the 1600s. It’s not the objective. Flying things doesn’t lead to certain truths, and we can study things and develop technologies by virtue of it. But it’s really not the essential platform of how life works on Earth. And so that’s what I’ve been about, is exploring that and healing that, that artificial divide.
Brilliant Miller [00:18:44] And it’s something I wanted to ask you more about, which is, that you talk about the objective case in this book, and I wonder if you’d be willing to say what that is and what effect it continues to have in our world today.
Gary Ferguson [00:18:57] Yeah, I’ll go back to that enlightenment 1600s that the birth of modern science which again was a wonderful thing. It gave us a set of tools by which we can understand the world and develop everything from blue jeans to rocket ships to great medical breakthroughs. So I’m not dissing that particular way of seeing the world, but it was predicated on understanding the world as a collection of things, as parts. And if you were a scientist and to some extent, this is very true still today, depending on the kind of science you do, you want to isolate that thing you’re studying and minimize the impacts and effects of everything that’s in context. So if you were studying a bird, you’d want to minimize the effect of the tree, you’d want to minimize the weather, the insect population. You’d wanted to zero in on that bird and find its essential truths. That’s very useful, but it’s also so artificially limited as far as what really goes on. I’m very heartened by modern science and biology, especially because the cutting edge now is really less about proving that life is evolving by virtue of those classic physical laws that Newton and Descartes, and Bacon came up with and were so good at applying through mathematics, it’s more about thinking, Wow, a lot of what goes on in the world, maybe even more of what goes on in the world, has to do with processes and chaos, theory and quantum mechanics and interrelatedness that is just staggering in its complexity and its ability to improvise. And so it’s an exciting time. And I think that that objectification that we learn so well that got transferred into virtually every institution, educational, government, and whatever we have has led us to become sort of feeling like I’m an isolated thing in a world of other isolated things, and it’s a very lonely place to be. And more significant to your question, I think, is the fact that once you hold something out as other for purposes of study, it certainly opens up and has opened up, opening up entire groups of people. People don’t look like you. People who don’t think like you, whether it’s religion or race or sexual orientation or whatever happens to be. There is an objectification tendency that’s really quite entrenched in us right now. And it has horrific consequences. The biggest one to me is the elimination of the very diversity that nature teaches us is essential for people and every creature on earth to actually thrive on planet Earth.
Brilliant Miller [00:21:47] Yeah. Now I’m with you there. And I once heard a woman who probably crossed paths with Julia Butterfly Hill. Yes. And I heard her say, you know, we talk about throwing things away, but there is no way. Right. And how I think that speaks to this sense of division or separation that we live within science, I think is guilty of it if guilt is a factor. But I think so is our natural system of commerce, where this is my home and I have the deed to prove it. And, you know, this is my line. And like all of these things and it’s a very different worldview from, say, indigenous worldviews in some pretty significant ways. And that’s something also that you talk about in this book, an experience you had with an Ojibwa woman who told you a story. As a storyteller, it helps you to understand not only the power of stories but as I understand it also the relationship that can be created or may be made visible through a story. I wonder if this is a useful place to go in our conversation about this. And I’m always kind of skeptical to do this because I don’t want to hold up. Another culture is like the idea and it’s the answer and we’re all wrong or anything like that. But yeah, but what in your travels and in your studies, you’ve learned that maybe we’re remembering or we could benefit from when it comes to indigenous wisdom.
Gary Ferguson [00:23:15] Yeah. Amelia Legarde is the elderly Ojibwe woman who I spent time with in the Duluth area, and she certainly reminded me, as had others. Indigenous storytellers that when it came time to deal with a crisis in the community, for instance, if, if there was a teenager who was getting into all sorts of trouble, they didn’t ground the teenager or spank the teenager. They sent the teenager to the storyteller. And the storyteller would tell a tale that included characters going through things that might be very similar to what that may be animal people, characters very similar to what that particular young girl or boy was going through. And through that identification and through the power of story, that young person was able to find maybe a light that would guide their way through that difficult time. The story that I mentioned in the book that she told me was one called When Butterflies Taught Children to Walk. And it’s really about the Power of Beauty. And she said when I was leaving her, if you tell that story and she said, I hope you will just keep in mind that we don’t tell that story to remind us of. One of the obvious themes in the story is that you don’t want to give children everything, you don’t want to lay it in their lap. They have to reach and struggle and strive for what they want. That’s how they grow, she said. We get that. We don’t tell it for that, but we tell it because when we’re in pain and when we’re suffering loss, and when we’re in the midst of grief, sometimes we forget that beauty really will help us get through that and lead us to the other side. And so those stories and we are all stories loving and story inhabiting people. And whether or not we’re able to react to a major crisis like climate change will depend not just on the technology, but the technology itself will be developed and energized by virtue of the stories that we’re telling about our relationship with the Earth.
Brilliant Miller [00:25:21] That’s beautiful. And that whole view of beauty is what will help us heal. Or maybe I don’t know that I know what the term is to deal with. Grief is such, it’s such a beautiful perspective and one that had never occurred to me. And I’ve been touched to understand a bit of your story that you’re no stranger to grief. And I think that, I suspect that’s part of what helps you to be such an effective communicator. Maybe there’s empathy or compassion that you have just with people you’ve never even met, people you know that you don’t know who will read the words you’re sending out into the world. But what have you learned? What have you learned about grief?
Gary Ferguson [00:26:03] Yes. I’m thinking of this line by Stanley Kunitz, the poet, how will the heart? He said, How will the heart reconcile itself to this feast of losses? And that’s really what life includes. It’s not all life includes, but all of us have either been in grief, are in grief, or will be in grief over something in the future. One of the biggest tragedies in my life was losing my wife of 25 years when we were in a terrible canoeing accident up in Ontario on the Congo River. And interestingly, she had requested many years before and then reminded me of it, oddly, just a couple of days before she died, that if something ever happened to her, she wanted her ashes scattered in her favorite places or favorite wild places, five different places. And so that was a great gift to me because after her death in that whole horrible, dark place, that that seems eternal in those moments. She, through that request, got me out into those places, into those wild places, with all the lessons of beauty and other things that they held so that the wheel of grief kept turning in me. I kept moving forward. It wasn’t linear. There were some days that were, as you know, back steps. But the fact of the matter is, what I learned about grief in that experience is something that storytellers like Amelia Legarde reminded me about as well. And that’s that across thousands of years of storytelling, we see three qualities most identified with nature that keeps showing up. And the storytellers are basically saying, If you want to live well in the world, you must maintain relationships with these three qualities. And a lot of the stories are absolutely about one or more of those three qualities. So one of those qualities we’ve already talked about is beauty. The other quality that I found in nature when I was out doing these scattering was community. The fact that there aren’t those individual isolated things, there is only the community. There is no tree. There was no animal that would exist without it being held in that web of community. And the third thing is a mystery, you need to have a relationship with the mysterious. I love that of all people. Albert Einstein once said to his students, and you said this to his students actually on many occasions. He said, If you have a choice between knowledge and mystery, choose mystery. It will serve you far better. And, you know, that really took me aback. Given the size of his left brain’s intellectual capacity, he still felt that mystery was essential to have a sense of potential in the world of being present and having that wonder that opens up in us as children still be present and potentially open up for us as adults. So those are the three things that I was those qualities are what I was reminded of when dealing with that grief. And I think those three qualities got me through.
Brilliant Miller [00:29:28] And I thank you for sharing that. I was very touched. I don’t remember who you were speaking to, but I found a video on YouTube of you sharing the story of your canoeing and how you were lucky to survive, and the story of the loss of your wife. And I was deeply touched. And I’m for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for your loss.
Gary Ferguson [00:29:48] Thank you, Brian. I appreciate that very much. Yeah, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And yet, as I said, we all must navigate. And, you know, this is one thing I think, in our culture that we’re probably not particularly good at, and that’s grief. And this is really showing up even when it comes to talking about and trying to come up with solutions for something like climate change. It’s perceived as a bummer. And I feel so guilty that we’ve done this to the planet. Yes. Yes. And those feelings need to be held up. They need to be embraced, and they need to be moved through, and pretending that the situation isn’t there because we’re uncomfortable with the grief that that processing will involve is slowing us down terribly.
Brilliant Miller [00:30:32] Yeah, well, I think you’re right about, you know, we don’t necessarily know, like, what to do with it or how to be with grief. But I think that’s just a subset of I think when it comes to emotions, when it comes to feelings that we don’t have a deep understanding or vocabulary for, you know, these kinds of things. And we’re learning, you know, I think we’re in pain awakens us to some degree. And I think we’re going through that. And I do want to talk to you more about climate change. And I realize full ecology is a big part of your work now. Before we go there, though, just maybe on the topic of relationships and renewal, perhaps I was deeply moved by what you wrote about wildfires. And I really, really appreciate what you said about how relationships I don’t know exactly how you worded it. So maybe you can share it with me now. If you remember about when we don’t address kind of the smaller things that can burn, I don’t know how to say that it’s become a big conflagration in our relationship. So there’s first of all, there’s a beauty in nature how it has this renewal. And then there’s a, I think, relationship to our relationships that’s useful in all of that in the background. I do want to ask you about Yellowstone, and I understand you did a 500-mile walk around and probably spent a lot more time and were there for the reintroduction of the wolves. So yeah, I mean, there are so many places, but maybe we can start with just Yellowstone if that’s okay.
Gary Ferguson [00:31:59] Sure. And to respond to your fire question, of course, here again, we’re back to us being storytelling creatures because we’re reaching for metaphors in what’s going on in the world around us and trying to use them to build steps to where we’re going. And so for me and I have written about wildfires quite a bit. One of the reasons we’re in such dire straits of climate change is a big part of it, but also because we’ve allowed the fuel load to the suppression of fires for about 70 years beginning in around 1920, to build up to the point that instead of these standard maintenance fires, which were really quite mellow by comparison of what we often see today, but that were necessary to burn through and return those dead branches and dead trees to the soil in the intermountain west, especially, the only way biomass, the primary way biomass returns the soil and returns the nutrients to the soil to grow the next forest is because of fire. We don’t have the kind of microorganisms to the degree that a wetter place does in the Northeast or the northwest. So fire is a big part of returning that biomass and returning the nutrient potential. So we let all of that that the thinking fire was the enemy and fire was bad. We launched a really, quite literally war against wildfire. And we put out everything. And that allowed these things to build up. And in that sense, yes, I see a metaphor that’s useful to relationships, whether it’s friendships or intimate relationships, as you know. Are we processing? Are we taking the stuff that’s laying on the floor that needs to be addressed and return as a nutrient to the soil? Are we processing that or are we just pretending and hoping that you know, everything will work out on its own? The other thing about fires that I apply to, I think human relationships routinely is the fact that when nature is disturbed and wildfire can, especially with the mega-fires, which are fires over a hundred thousand acres, it’s a huge disturbance. How the forest recovers in the face of a wildfire depends on two things. One, does the forest itself have ways of blunting the major impact of the trauma? And again, we could ask ourselves this in our relationships. So a Ponderosa pine, for instance, you can see as they get bigger, they drop their lower limb. So sometimes there aren’t any limbs for the first 15 to 30 feet. That’s so that the fire flames don’t climb the ladder of those limbs and crown arbitrary and kill the tree. They’ve got very thick bark that protects them. So lodgepole pine has Soroptimist cones that only open in the presence of fire. About 20% of the cones on a given tree only open in the presence of fire. So there’s been a way to evolve in such a method that it protects you from the blunt force, the trauma. The second thing to keep in mind about the recovery is whether or not that plant community has the basics that it needs to get started again and protect it. In other words, that could be the seeds in the soil, the roots of the Aspen that will, you know, throw up new Aspen sprouts. All the microbes in the soil that make nutrients available are the pollinators nearby so they can come back when the first plants emerge to pollinate them again. So those two things are, I think, worth considering in life as well. What have we got in place that will protect us or keep us healthy in the face of great disruption to protect us from blunt trauma? And secondly, what have we got as far as networks, community networks that will allow us to recover after we feel the disruption? And I certainly got to see how that played out when Jane died, my wife in the canoe accident.
Brilliant Miller [00:35:53] So thank you for sharing that. That is so wonderful. And when we can look at a natural system or any natural thing and see something. In ourselves, which I think goes back, I get pretty philosophical pretty quickly. But there’s like you said, we’re just we’re looking out at ourselves. And yet for some reason, we often separate ourselves from it or maybe hold ourselves above that. Because I think, you know, whether again, to go to the indigenous perspective, I think of looking at animals, even animals as our kin, that any human who has been alone face to face in close proximity with something like an elk or a shark or a bear, knows they are in no way about.
Gary Ferguson [00:36:38] Humility is as suddenly within reach.
Brilliant Miller [00:36:42] All of that. So yeah. And then with Yellowstone, I mean, what a special place. Maybe, maybe you could talk about what was this did you really walk 500 miles around the park?
Gary Ferguson [00:36:55] I did walk 500 miles. Shortly after moving to Montana from Colorado in 1987, I decided I really want to know what my backyard consists of on. And that was on the corner of Yellowstone and the northeast corner. And so I launched this 500-mile walk later for National Geographic. I would walk about 145 miles from my home to the so-called most remote place left in the lower 48, which was in extreme southeast Yellowstone, lived there for three months, and then hike out and then scattering Jane’s ashes. One of the places she wanted to be scattered was in Yellowstone, where she worked as an environmental educator with kids. And so that was another trip of about 130, 140 miles. So I put in, I think about 15,000 miles in Yellowstone over the years. And it calls me it is to this day the ecosystem as a whole, not just the park, the largest generally intact ecosystem left in the temperate world. It has its full complement of historic species, especially with the return of the wolf. And so there is the scientists would say it’s a baseline for how things can work, for the capacity that a system has to live if it’s not overly messed with by interference from humans. And to me, though, it’s an opportunity, not just with the elk and the bear to get that humility, but just to get quiet and to learn. Yeah, there’s a wonderful bit of research psychologists have done that talks about soft fascination. And soft fascination is a state of mind, and they can measure it with electrical impulses that we get into when we’re in a place that we find enchanting or beautiful. And so nature fills that bill. And it’s been noted that cortisol levels tend to go down during periods of soft fascination. Heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and the tendency to ruminate, which is in the frontal cortex of the brain, eases off. And it’s so powerful that they’ve found for corporate teams, if they go in and can do these experiences where they have two or three days in wild settings, they come back and engage in creative endeavors, and wow, there’s so much better at doing that. And part of the reason they’re doing it is the neurochemical changes that are going on in their brain because of that soft fascination.
Brilliant Miller [00:39:29] Now, it sounds a little bit like what I’ve learned about the flow state. Oh, oh, you know, those things. And then it reminds me as well when you talk about that there are physical changes that occur within us. In some studies, I’ve read about patients who either had a view of a patient in a hospital convalescing or who had a view of a brick window or greenery. Yes. And nothing else was materially changed except what they could see out the window those with a view of something natural recovered quicker.
Gary Ferguson [00:39:59] Yes. Yes. In fact, some researchers now are saying that actually your longevity is to some extent influenced by how accessible, either visually or being out in some sort of green space it could be in the city. But if you were completely cut off from trees and other things, it seems to have enough of a serious physical impact that it will reduce your longevity. Of course, that’s a very tricky thing to tease out, but there’s strong evidence that that’s the case.
Brilliant Miller [00:40:26] Yeah. There are so many, so many things I want to ask you about. I want to ask you about this wilderness therapy. I want to ask for anyone who is interested to go what I think would be called backcountry in Yellowstone, what they need to know. I want to ask about clock time versus physical time. And probably in those 50,000 miles plus all your years outside, what you’ve learned about that, that might improve the quality of our lives. So we can go anywhere. What makes sense to you to talk about.
Gary Ferguson [00:40:57] What you mentioned, is wilderness therapy. And I’d love to talk about that for a little bit because out of 27 books I’ve written at this point, that, one, I wouldn’t necessarily choose as my most literary, but for me, the experience was the most powerful, and it influenced my life in ways that are still amazing to me. And when I say wilderness therapy, I’m talking about compassion-based, influence-based programs. And the one I spent several months in working with kids was for 14 to 17-year-olds who had been really struggling with massive drug addictions, and suicidal tendencies. They were really at the end of the road. Their parents were thinking that they may not be alive if they didn’t get some user intervention. They were veterans of all kinds of therapy and nothing worked. So they came to an eight-week wilderness therapy program. Again, kind of influence based, not a military structure, which doesn’t work at all. And what was amazing to me is I could see the wilderness.
Brilliant Miller [00:42:09] Healing me.
Gary Ferguson [00:42:10] From all kinds of trauma. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to be there since I was nine years old. As I said, it was uncanny to me when I read that according to research from our good wilderness therapy programs, the recidivism rate in drug addiction was a third of what it was in standard 28-day lockdown facilities. So these young people were having successes in the wilderness and they didn’t necessarily want to be there at all. The vast majority, if they could have picked any place to be for therapy, walking out into the wilderness with a makeshift pack on their back and living on the trail for eight weeks would have been the last place they wanted to be. And yet, in part because of the kind of therapy that was going on, because of their relationship they were able to build with the natural world. I saw them transform in ways that were just stunning in the sense that they finally began to see what was unique and powerful about themselves. And then through that experience with those other young people in the wilderness, they found that of that unique power was a gift they could give to the larger community. And I followed nine of those 12 kids who I spent time with for a year, and then I got in touch with. I followed 12 and then I got in touch with nine of those 12, ten years later. And when I asked them, how come this works so well? You know, you tried all this other stuff and this worked, even though you weren’t all that excited to be in the wilderness at all. Lo and behold, the three answers they gave most commonly the first place where I ever was, where what I did mattered. So it really mattered how comfortable the group was based on what I did. There’s community. It was the first place I’ve ever been in the presence of something truly beautiful, which I thought was somewhat tragic for a 16 or 17-year-old say. And the third thing was, it was the first time I ever felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. And some use the word God, some say creator, and some said great spirit. So there’s beauty, there’s a community, there’s a mystery all over again. Coming home by virtue of the day-to-day. Astonishingly satisfying experience, difficult experience, but a satisfying experience that these kids had in the natural world. And I walked out of that and I’m still in touch with some of those kids. And every day I am reminded in the face of all kinds of difficult things going on in the world, that these qualities and these empowerments, by virtue of us being in relationship with each other and with the natural world, are still available to us without fail.
Brilliant Miller [00:45:02] That’s remarkable. And yeah, just hearing you, I imagine there will be some people listening to this who are raising kids, who are having challenges and they’re maybe feeling like they don’t know what to do and maybe they’ve heard of this or even considered it. But even that, like for me, this is the first time I’ve ever realized that, oh, they’re not. Not all wilderness therapy programs are the same.
Gary Ferguson [00:45:26] No, no, no. Not at all. And there are, unfortunately, perhaps less than there used to be, but unfortunately, really heavy discipline-based, almost boot camp models. And the outcome studies from those are not impressive and it makes sense because in the more influenced base you’re identifying your own unique power and how to access that for the benefit of yourself and the group in the other, you’re having somebody sort of yell at you to impose a kind of infrastructure in you about how you should be and how you’re coming up short. Those are very, very different therapeutic processes.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:08] Yeah, no doubt. And I have a theory that punishment doesn’t work.
Gary Ferguson [00:46:12] So I agree with you.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:14] The approach that approximates that is not likely to be effective as far as I can tell. So. Well, thank you for sharing that. Okay. Let me turn our conversation to full ecology. Okay. Which, by the way, one reviewer on Amazon called the most important book of our Times. That’s a pretty strong review.
Gary Ferguson [00:46:36] Love that guy.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:38] Which is pretty amazing. But tell me let’s see. I had one question in particular. Oh, so maybe this is a place to start, but I understand that this book is largely about confronting the climate crisis. But of course, that’s not the only crisis, whether it’s deforestation or overfishing or overpopulation or so many other loss of biodiversity. But how can we confront the climate crisis or any of these big existential challenges we’re now facing without losing heart?
Gary Ferguson [00:47:10] Yeah, that’s a great point. Part of it is, again, making space for grief. That’s going to be part of our journey. But full ecology came in the wake of the eight Master Lessons of Nature, and it’s intimately connected to it. I happen to be fortunate enough to be married to a very celebrated social scientist by the name of Dr. Mary Clare. And she, besides being in graduate school at Lewis and Clark College, taught and prepared therapists and psychologists, and public leaders for 30 years. She also consults with corporations and nonprofits. And what she’s really good at is helping people understand that in addition to the essential ecologies out there, we tend to think of ecology as us taking care of the planet. Her point is that while that’s all well and good, we also if we want that to be successful at all, have to take care of the ecologies that exist inside of us and between us as humans. And she’s worked with Yellowstone and many other places where people just don’t tend to think in those terms. What’s more, you know, I’ve got to save I’ve got to save this place. But you begin by also tending and nourishing and saving if you will, your own truth and your own sense of power and how you interact with other people. So once you’ve gotten that in place, then it becomes an ecology that really is quite effective at keeping us from falling into oppressing coworkers, oppressing entire cultures or racial groups. It keeps us drawing on lessons from nature, such as diversity, within our boardrooms, and our company lunchrooms. It shows us how those nature lessons do, in fact, reside in us. Of course, humans express those qualities that nature has in their own unique way. But those superpowers, Mary told me, are our superpowers, too. And so if we start focusing on how we are with each other, truly, in addition to how we are with the planet, that’s the road forward. And so full ecology is meant to introduce that idea. Again, it’s a healing of that very artificial divide that we put into place for real 500 years ago that says it’s its nature over here and humans over there. You know, I have to say, brilliant. When I was telling that story earlier about coming to the wilderness after seeing those magazine photos, I, too, was living out of a kind of a dichotomy, binary thinking that, oh, where I’m. Coming from. It’s the Rust Belt. It’s very polluted. It’s you know, I’m going to go to the pristine. I’m going to go to the place that hasn’t been soiled and spoiled yet by humans. Well, to some extent, I could get away with that illusion for a while. But with things like holes in the ozone and now in the face of climate change, it really is true. As ecofeminists said back in the late seventies, what we do to one part of the whole we do to all. And so I have come to understand that there is no escaping to some more pristine place where these problems aren’t affecting us. We’re going to have to really restore our connection to the natural world and act as if we were dependent on that for our well-being. Because we are we really don’t know.
Brilliant Miller [00:50:52] You know that I think that insight is actually quite profound in the I the first time something like that was introduced to me was when I heard Van Jones speak and he talked about the same it’s the same mentality that would take a plastic bottle and just throw it away. That would take a kid who made a mistake and put him in prison for life. And like you’re saying that it’s not isolated. It’s there’s a whole mentality. And of course, in the personal growth world saying how you do anything is how you do everything. I think there’s some truth to that, even though it’s a bit cliche. So yeah, there’s some there’s a lot there.
Gary Ferguson [00:51:30] You know, and one of the things I think that that, again, very useful but extraordinarily limited period of early modern science that that objectification, it gave us a very heady and misleading sense of hubris. By controlling parts, we began to believe we got to control reality. We got to control what happened. And yeah, we can influence greatly a lot of things, you know, that’s how we’ve applied standard classic physics to be able to predict and control. That’s what it was about. But there’s so much that we have to remain open to reacting at the moment. I mean, that’s what nature does. Nature lives in the moment. And so that if some kind of disruption happens, it isn’t nature responding so eloquently because it’s got plans for that. It simply responds to what’s going on at any given moment and reacts accordingly. And to live at that edge of life, the leading edge of life is a little unsettling when you’re used to hiding behind the notion of control. But ultimately, it’s exhilarating.
Brilliant Miller [00:52:41] Yeah, and that is the essence of what it is to be alive, as far as I can tell, is that responsiveness, that immediacy, you know, there is I remember a teacher of mine, the spiritual teacher said it’s always only ever today in the universe.
Gary Ferguson [00:52:57] I love that.
Brilliant Miller [00:52:57] I love never is not this now and later here and there. It’s just. And life shows that, right? Yeah. Yeah. So powerful. And then here we are with our words and our concepts and, you know, like all these ideas that in many ways, I think to separate us from that aliveness that’s available.
Gary Ferguson [00:53:17] Good point. Good for him.
Brilliant Miller [00:53:19] Well, what I’m just looking at the things and on that topic, by the way, of life and nature, I love what you wrote in the master laws that nature doesn’t lose energy by virtue of relationship, it gains it. The efficiency of nature is always in service to life, creating life.
Gary Ferguson [00:53:39] Yeah, it’s really true. And, you know, there’s no such thing on planet Earth as a rugged individual. We love that image in America, especially rugged individuals. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. I’m not saying that there isn’t some value in the general notion, but there is no such thing as a rugged individual. We are all in the community. And, you know, one of the things that I should mention, we’re talking so much about relationships and interdependence. This is something that had we kept the feminine, the archetypal feminine qualities alive as they were four or 5000 years ago, through a variety of ways that we created theology and so forth. But long, long story short, we ended up pretty much kicking out the goddesses that were populating a lot of theology and ultimately reducing the freedom and the worth of girls and women. So we cut off basically more than half of the world’s wisdom by virtue of suppressing and oppressing and objectifying girls and women and cutting ourselves off as men from the archetypal feminine and archetypal feminine refers to energy. I love, love. Sue’s description is nature feeds and clothes all being without having the need to be master over them. And that’s he was trying to essentially illuminate the feminine quality of nature. And so to the extent, we can actually heal some of those wounds, and men really need to do a lot of the healing and accept the worth of that relational, archetypal feminine energy and certainly protect girls and women better and allow equal opportunity for them. Then we’re also going to, I think, get greatly fortified and much wiser for how to act in the face of any given problem we might face in the years to come.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:52] Oh, I think you’re right. And that’s well said. So thank you. Well, with that, I know there’s so much more that we could talk about and more we will talk about. But with your permission, I want to go ahead and transition us to the Enlightening lightning round.
Gary Ferguson [00:56:06] Okay. Well, I’m not sure what that means, but let’s do it.
Brilliant Miller [00:56:09] All right. Most people come out just fine on the other.
Gary Ferguson [00:56:12] Oh, boy. Nothing to worry about. Okay.
Brilliant Miller [00:56:15] Okay. So, again, this is a series of questions on a variety of topics. You’re welcome to answer as long as you want. My aim, for the most part, is to ask the question and kind of stand aside. Okay. So, okay. Question number one, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a.
Gary Ferguson [00:56:35] Invitation to participate more deeply.
Brilliant Miller [00:56:38] Hmm. Okay. Question number two. What’s something you’ve changed your mind about in the last few years?
Gary Ferguson [00:56:47] I would say it’s not changing my mind, but it was opening up to just how important, interconnected, and interdependence qualities are. Not so much biologically in the natural world, because thanks to a lot of great teachers, I got that very strongly over the last 30 years. But in relationships and whether that’s a group that I volunteer with or whether it’s my marriage that is so important to understand. And probably if I had a blind spot by growing up a fairly privileged white male, you know, in the sixties and seventies, I just didn’t really pay much attention to that. But I do think that one way I’ve opened up in one way my life is more satisfying now is to give full measure and full importance to that, to that truth that the value and the beauty and the power of our interdependence.
Brilliant Miller [00:57:54] Right. Thank you. Question number three. Now, this might be a stretch, but if you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it, or phrase or saying or a quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Gary Ferguson [00:58:06] Reclaim your human nature.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:09] Awesome. Okay. Question number four. What book, other than one of your own, have you gifted or recommended? Most often?
Gary Ferguson [00:58:17] Probably. Oh, gosh. Can I say? Well, I just have to pick one.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:23] No, it’s okay if it’s more than one.
Gary Ferguson [00:58:25] All right, I’ll say two.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:26] Okay.
Gary Ferguson [00:58:27] Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams. First Second Lead Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg.
Brilliant Miller [00:58:37] Is the one about wolves, isn’t it?
Gary Ferguson [00:58:39] No, that is. That is a collection of autobiographical essays about him growing up on a ranch in Wyoming back in the sixties and seventies and eighties. And it’s beautifully done. Mark is an extraordinarily gifted writer. And if you haven’t read that one, I couldn’t recommend it enough. And of course, refuge is just fantastic.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:06] I’m not familiar with either of those books, but I’m grateful to make their acquaintance. So thank you for that. Yes. And Terry Tempest Williams has Utah connections.
Gary Ferguson [00:59:14] Indeed she does. Yes. Yes.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:17] Why refuge? Why is this an important book for you?
Gary Ferguson [00:59:21] I think Terry did an extraordinary job in my mind, in my reading of it, in opening up her relationship to family and to the natural world and to the wounds that the people have inflicted on themselves by not treating relationships, not treating the natural world as well as they could, that it had a very I’ve been talking a lot about the archetypal feminine and whatnot, but it had a sense.
Brilliant Miller [00:59:50] Of the.
Gary Ferguson [00:59:51] Power of feminine and the power of relational. Again, these are qualities of in men too. But it lit me up in that in that way. So it wasn’t just the poetry of the language, which is often just really impressive, but it was the power that she revealed by virtue of the relationship she focused on.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:11] Wow. What are you reading right now?
Gary Ferguson [01:00:15] Well, I’m reading the rereading, actually, The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant, which came out in I think it was 1980. I hope I’m not misstating that. And that is a really, really interesting read if your audience is interested. She’s one of those academics that crosses every T and dots every eye and has footnotes just everywhere. So for a nerdy reader, which I often am, it was wonderful. But she really goes back to some of what happened in that era of enlightenment science and talks about not just this objectification that we were able to entrench, but also the fate of the feminine perspective, the female perspective, and how that kind of accent the blind spots that we created through that objectification. So it’s really quite marvelous. Gives me a stronger sense of understanding of how we got where we are today. Wow.
Brilliant Miller [01:01:15] All right. Thank you. Question number five. So this has to do with travel, knowing your life and your work. You’ve traveled a lot. What’s one thing you do? Maybe a travel hack, something you do, or something you take with you to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
Gary Ferguson [01:01:31] I just immediately went to a good book because I love when I’m on the plane to read. But. You know, to be honest, one of the things I take with me is. A commitment to sort of centering myself whenever I arrive in a new place, quietly letting the world let go, and trying to cultivate essentially what some spiritual leaders have called the beginner’s mind. So that when I do see what’s around me and this is especially true in a foreign country, I’m not caught up in that incessant noise of comparing what I’m seeing to what I know. And, you know, I have to judge it. Is this where does this go to? But just simply being a child back in that garden of wildflowers with the beams hovering over to me in my mom’s garden and being drawn into it. And so that’s not a physical object, but I really do try to carry that commitment with me when I travel.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:40] And I’ll bet that’s part of what would make you a great travel companion.
Gary Ferguson [01:02:45] Oh. Well, let’s go somewhere. Any time.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:48] Yeah.
Gary Ferguson [01:02:49] Always ready.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:50] I’ve traveled with people in places like Asia where they just want to find the next McDonald’s. Oh.
Gary Ferguson [01:02:55] Oh, oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
Brilliant Miller [01:02:59] So. Okay, question number six. What’s one thing you started or stopped doing in order to live or age? Well.
Gary Ferguson [01:03:13] I have not entirely stopped, but I am working on stopping living in the future, anticipating, or let’s be honest, I should say, worrying about all these things that may or may not happen because it’s true. As you mentioned earlier, it’s only ever today. And that’s where life happens. It can’t happen in the past and it can’t happen in the future. And every time I walk out in the natural world, I’m reminded of that because that’s how nature is existing. So I really am trying to stop. I had a pretty feverish tendency in my younger years to get all worked up about things that might or might not happen. And it really is a way that I felt ultimately that I was missing my life.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:07] Wow. Well, good that you’ve recognized that now and not 20 years from now.
Gary Ferguson [01:04:11] I know I’m getting old.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:14] And it reminds me of that thing by Twain I’m an old man and I’ve known many troubles, most of which have never come to pass.
Gary Ferguson [01:04:22] That’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
Brilliant Miller [01:04:25] That’s great. Okay, question number seven. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
Gary Ferguson [01:04:40] One thing that just comes to my mind at this moment is I wish every American knew how significant. In somewhat flawed ways, agreeably, but admittedly, how significant the natural world was to our sense of who we are as Americans. You know, way back in the mid-1700s, you’ve got pundits calling unkempt wilderness the great equalizer. And it was really significant because they realized when you go out in the wilderness, doesn’t matter how much money you have or how much blue in your blood or what your reputation is, or who your connections are. Wilderness gives us both the blessings and the risks of being there completely equally. And that became a foundation for when we did become a country, for just an avalanche of imagery that we used under state flags, pinecones, birds, feathers, you know, all sorts of things to identify ourselves as related in nature. And one last example of that. When Lewis and Clark were heading out to the Pacific Ocean, the big debate among progressive and orthodox clergy alike back on the Atlantic seaboard was is nature the hand and voice of God, or is nature God himself? And so this is the sort of foundation that we stood on. The Boy Scout handbook in the early 20th century outsold every other book in the country except the Bible. I mean, we really, really have kept turning to the natural world to identify ourselves and to, I think, generate that famous sense of American optimism and so forth, has has has its roots to some extent in our relationship with the land. And that’s very comforting and empowering to me. So that’s what I would wish.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:32] Awesome. Thank you. I have an idea about the Boy Scout handbook, too. Yeah.
Gary Ferguson [01:06:36] Amazing.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:37] Amazing. You know, my dad gave me, by the way, he had the Lewis and Clark journals. And it’s like I think it’s 14 volumes and then a book of maps. And when he passed, he gave me that. So I haven’t read it yet, but maybe at some point, I’ll take it.
Gary Ferguson [01:06:53] Oh, that’s what a wonderful gift. I love that.
Brilliant Miller [01:06:56] Yeah. Okay. So question number eight. We talked a lot about relationships. This question is about relationships. What’s the most important or useful thing you’ve learned about making relationships work?
Gary Ferguson [01:07:15] To cultivate the ability to listen to someone without giving in to either the urge to. Pigeonhole them by virtue of what I think they’re hearing.
Brilliant Miller [01:07:31] Or.
Gary Ferguson [01:07:32] Draw upon stories. I think I know about them. You know, it’s one that we all make stories about each other. But at that point, my story about you comes into conflict with what you’re really trying to tell me at the moment, I insist that, Oh, I know who you are and where you’re coming from instead of truly, truly listening, without any connection to those old stories about who I think you are, then I think relationships can come forward. You feel respected as a speaker that I’m truly listening to you and I get to learn from you and I get to adjust to my story of who you are based on what you’ve just told me. And so that that ability to participate in each other’s unfolding and each other’s becoming is is really, I think, essential. So it all comes down to listening, listening without too many stories running in the background.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:30] I love that. And as you talk and I hear you talk about how listening in that in that way can help one feel respected. I’m reminded I recently read that the etymology of respect is to look again. Oh, yes. Wonderful, wonderful things that you say that like listening, newly looking, actually, you know.
Gary Ferguson [01:08:50] Yes. Right, right, right. That’s perfect. That’s perfect.
Brilliant Miller [01:08:54] Okay. The last question here is about money. What’s the site from compound interest? What is the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about money?
Gary Ferguson [01:09:05] I think money is. Especially in this culture, which can elevate it to near-religious levels. It can play in so easily to the notion that we talked about before, where if I can control these individual things in these physical laws, then I can be in control of my life. Money, I think, promises control. But in fact, it can’t save us from the grief and the losses and all the other stuff we have. And while it can buy lots of distractions, that really only adds to our feeling of inadequacy and our fear about what life’s really about. So I’m increasingly enjoying, and perhaps this is a function of being as old as I am, of putting money out there to sustain relationships or support things that I really believe in, that that is energy. That money is energy. And so how does that energy best get applied? If I hoard it, then the energy stops, then the flow stops. But if I can help support things that I really believe in, then. Then the rivers keep running.
Brilliant Miller [01:10:25] Yeah, that’s beautiful. And it reminds me of something. Someone you might know and you know Lynne Twist.
Gary Ferguson [01:10:31] I know the name. Yes.
Brilliant Miller [01:10:33] Yes. She’s the founder of the Patch Mom Alliance, and she’s written a book called The Soul of Money. And just what you’re talking about, if we hoard it, the energy stops. She pointed out to me that that’s why we call it currency because it wants to flow.
Gary Ferguson [01:10:48] Oh wow, I have never heard that.
Brilliant Miller [01:10:49] Yeah. Isn’t that interesting.
Gary Ferguson [01:10:51] Quite Wonderful?.
Brilliant Miller [01:10:51] Thank you. And then in the early when you were talking about money, how we often esteem it to the point of like deify it, I’m reminded of what Joseph Campbell in the power of myth when he’s in a conversation with Bill Moyers and he pointed out, he said, you can tell what any society values by what its tallest buildings are. Oh, yes, amazing. In olden times it was maybe the churches or maybe in some communities, the university or whatever. But in our modern cities, the financial power.
Gary Ferguson [01:11:19] So it’s so true. You know, I remember in the Yellowstone archives when I was doing some research, stumbling across this journal that was written by I suspect he was around 18 or 19 years old, and he came from the east and he was just on an adventure and he was traipsing around Yellowstone with basically a pack slung on his back and happy as could be. And somebody along the way stopped to talk with him. And one of his lines was and he appeared quite poor in the way he was dressed. But he said, I’m richer than Harriman, who was a big financier. And industrialists of the time said I’m richer than Herman. I’ve got all the money I want. And he doesn’t.
Brilliant Miller [01:11:57] Wow. That’s powerful. Yeah, that’s. That’s cool. Well, all right. Well, congratulations. You survived the enlightening lightning round. Wow.
Gary Ferguson [01:12:09] By the skin of my teeth, perhaps.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:11] And that was fun. And the last question there is about money. Speaking of money, one of the things I’ve done, an attempt to express my gratitude to you for sharing so generously your wisdom and your experience today is I’ve made $100 microloans to a woman in she’s in Moldova. She’s a 41-year-old. Her name is Radhika, and she works as a cook in a local winery. And she will use this money actually for beehives and then in that way, support you.
Gary Ferguson [01:12:42] You’ve made my whole week. That’s. That’s beautiful. But isn’t that really lovely? Thank you.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:46] Yeah. I love I’m sure you know Paul Hawken.
Gary Ferguson [01:12:49] Yes. Yes, I do. Paul was very generous in supporting our full ecology book and the work that we’re doing. So, yes, I’m a big fan of Paul.
Brilliant Miller [01:12:58] Yeah, he’s amazing. And I love him, I’ve heard him say that poverty doesn’t want to be fixed. Poverty wants to fix itself.
Gary Ferguson [01:13:06] Oh, that’s wonderful.
Brilliant Miller [01:13:08] Yeah. And self-sufficiency, and so forth. And I think that these microloans, which I won’t receive any interest, but the field partner who administers them will. So hopefully in that way, this will be a virtuous cycle that our conversation will in some way have lent some energy to. Oh.
Gary Ferguson [01:13:23] Yeah, that just puts a smile on my face. Brilliant, thank you.
Brilliant Miller [01:13:27] My pleasure. For the last part of our interview here, and I’ll just check in with you and ask how you’re doing if you find a break or if you’re going to do it for another 20 minutes or so. Sure. Okay. So the last part of the conversation here, I just have a few questions about writing and the creative process. And again, as a reminder that I think I hope that people listening, many of them are writers or aspiring writers grade. We can learn from you both examples and maybe gain some inspiration that will help them in their own projects. Terrific. So I’ll start by asking when did you first know you were a writer?
Gary Ferguson [01:14:07] Well, I started keeping journals probably about the age of 13 or 14, writing some poetry, of course. It was the typical journal of kind of pouring my heart out about different things or celebrating adventures that I had had or whatnot. And I think as I closed out my high school years, I began thinking more seriously about how satisfying I found writing. And then by the time I got to college, I was an environmental science major. I was not a writing major. I knew if later I was going to apply myself to being a writer, I wanted to write about the natural world. That was what I wanted to focus mostly on. And so almost all of my 27 books have been about the natural world in one form or another. But one of the things I think that appealed to me early on about writing is that I had a difficult time picking just one path for life, you know, okay, I’m going to be an engineer or I’m going to be a lawyer or I’m going to just it was hard for me to imagine picking one path and writing had the potential and it has delivered in spades of going out in all kinds of different circumstances, talking to all kinds of different people, living through the different lives. And so it’s been extraordinarily satisfying for me, who has so many different interests to be able to pursue them. The other thing is, that writing has really been good for an essential quality of what I think makes for a good life for me. And that’s to be able to continue to break the frames that we build around how we think the world works. I’ve never spent time with somebody during a book project or for that matter, go into nature where I didn’t come back, where the frame that I had around the world as far as what I thought was true reality didn’t get broken and reassembled in some larger, more expansive fashion. And so writing has been very, very good for me on that on that level. And I’m a sucker for a beautiful sentence, a beautiful paragraph, a beautiful story. And so it’s something you never achieve. You know, total excellence. There’s no finish line as a writer, but it’s it keeps you in the company, I think, of powerful and beautiful thoughts.
Brilliant Miller [01:16:41] Yeah, that’s been my experience as well. And I love what you’re saying about there being no finish line as a writer. And I think I mean, that’s something that I have previously believed that I’ve been disabused of that belief that I think many people think, oh, when I get this draft done or even when I get it published or something. But then I’ve heard someone say Books are never done. Books are never finished. They’re only published.
Gary Ferguson [01:17:02] That’s what I agree with. I agree. I can’t pick up any book without reading. Oh, I should have done that instead. But yeah, yeah. They’re not finished. They’re published.
Brilliant Miller [01:17:12] Works. Who has been influential in your development as a writer and how have you learned from them?
Gary Ferguson [01:17:20] Well, starting early on, when I did decide to be a writer, which was in my last couple of years of college, I started going to writers’ conferences and workshops. And, you know, writers are often introverts and myself included. And so there is a reluctance or sometimes a resistance to go into social settings for a variety of reasons. But the fact of the matter is, those helped get me grounded. I started to at least understand the mechanics of, Oh, if I don’t submit a story idea that I’ve got from a magazine in this accepted format known as a query which adheres to very strict rules, and I just keep sending the stories in, I’m probably never going to get published, but it didn’t have anything to do necessarily with quality of the writing. It’s that there’s a formula, if you will, about how to communicate your ideas, and sort of learning those sorts of nuts and bolts was essential. If I had to do it over again, I would do even more of those kinds of workshops I taught for ten years in a master’s of Fine Arts Law Residency program at Pacific Lutheran University, Rainier Writing Workshop. And that really helped me see through my student’s fast and deep progression that again, having somebody who’s a little better than you a little wiser in the ways of the writing world, who can convey essential ideas about technique. Having those people in your life helps you lift off ultimately. Again, no such thing as a rugged individual.
Brilliant Miller [01:19:00] Yeah, that’s right. And right back to that about community. I want to go back to the thing you said about when you. Decided to be a writer in your last few years of college. Was there a moment like a specific memory you have of when you kind of closed the door to other possibilities and committed to this? Or was it a gradual thing? Or what was that like?
Gary Ferguson [01:19:21] The thing I associate with it is I had a wonderful idea. I only took perhaps four creative writing classes in college. The last one I took was taught by a teacher’s assistant named Art to address, and I’d love to see if he’s still around. But I went to Art and I said, Art, I’m thinking of really trying to make this happen as a writer. And he said it’s an exceedingly difficult path, but I think you can do it. I think you’ve got the ability to do it. And so with that confidence that art put in me, sort of in my pocket, I just decided, okay, what do I need to do? And I immediately started going around finding out who the writers were in the Midwest that wasn’t too far away, calling them, asking if I could visit with them. And you know what they had to say as far as advice. But it was arts encouragement that really, I think, gave me the confidence to take the first steps.
Brilliant Miller [01:20:22] And that’s really beautiful. And I’m reminded and this is like the interconnectedness of the web of life or existence, how we’ll sometimes that’s us who needs that? And at other times it’s us who can give that. Yes. Kind of knowledge or confidence to another person. And in many cases, I’m convinced that we don’t even know, you know, we have no idea what our lives really are or the impact they have on us.
Gary Ferguson [01:20:48] Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen it in a couple of my students who were really quite talented but didn’t have any sense of their own talent at all. And for me to pass that on would pass to me. You can see it in their faces. It lights them up and gives them the stature to keep going. It’s very powerful what we give to others. And that’s the definition, really, in a lot of cultures of elderhood is to be able to kind of empower the community, the people of the community, and not worry about, you know, yourself quite so much how it’s going to reflect on you or what goodies or riches you’re going to get from it.
Brilliant Miller [01:21:25] Yeah, that’s cool. So for someone who has taught for more than ten years and who has written nearly 30 books and so much more beyond that. I don’t want to I don’t want to trivialize this question, but I want to ask, what do you say? Like what? What are the broad strokes of what you say about that opening class to these people who either think they are writers or they want to be writers? Like what’s in your first 5 minutes of that kind of lecture, that opening?
Gary Ferguson [01:21:54] I teach literary nonfiction, so it’s not so much hard journalism or news writing, and that’s a very different thing. It is. So what I first point out and allow them to savor for a while is the fact that I and they are all storytellers and that they’re calling to write and even if they want to make it a profession, is really about being a storyteller. The writing happens to be the mechanism by which the stories are told as opposed to film or other media. But they really are storytellers. And with that in mind. I also share something that I’ve loved for a long time from Rumi, a piece of advice. He said, Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. And so if for all the technical stuff will do and I’ll get to that in a minute if you can go into your writing again with that sense of wonder, that beginner’s mind, that confusion, that actually that energy will help you arrive at a kind of truth that wants to be released in that storytelling. Now, after I see that. I also tell a real brief anecdote from John Coltrane, the great jazz saxophone player from the primarily forties and fifties. He went on in the early days of television on a talk show in the United Kingdom, and the host was just so excited to have him there because he was by far the best saxophonist and maybe is to this day in the world. And the host was just tripping all over himself saying, Oh, Mr. Coltrane, what I really want to know is how do you improvise so beautifully? You just, you know, you’ll be on a melodic line and then you’ll go off and improvise and take us to universes we never imagined. And then somehow you find your way back to the melodic line and Coltrane starts giving this just boring, horrifically long, tedious answer about, Oh, well, when I was 11, I had these syncopation exercises and I had to do them every day, and this is what they looked like. And then he went on and on and on about all this, these.
Brilliant Miller [01:24:12] Technique.
Gary Ferguson [01:24:14] Traditions that he was taught. And it was just bad. And even for early television, that host knew, oh, this is not good, good TV. And then finally, after about 10 minutes of rambling on like that, Coltrane leans forward and puts his hands on his knees and looks right in the eyes of the interviewer and says, And then you forget all that crap and you just wail. And so I tell my students, This isn’t I’m telling the story because you have to do all of that tedium. You have to do those exercises. You have to get good at the mechanics of putting words together. And then at some point, your voice begins to emerge, and then you can really begin to break the very rules that you’ve been taught and start to wail.
Brilliant Miller [01:25:03] That’s such a great example. You know.
Gary Ferguson [01:25:07] If it’s good enough for John Coltrane, I mean.
Brilliant Miller [01:25:10] That’s awesome. Thank you. How has your process of writing a book changed over the years? Like, what does your process look like now? And maybe how is it different from how it used to be?
Gary Ferguson [01:25:24] Oh, I, I used to have everything fairly well outlined before I started. And by the way, if you’re selling a nonfiction book, you sell it by virtue of a proposal. And so you will have to outline, you will have to describe what every chapter is going to be about. Does it mean that’s what the book ends up being? But in order for the editor and the marketing department to get a handle on what you’re suggesting and to analyze whether they think they can sell it, you have to define it fairly clearly. I would also, when I started writing, go ahead and write to that outline. And anymore I’m very comfortable with. Not knowing exactly where it’s going with not starting at the beginning, which I always, always used to do, thinking that if I didn’t have that foundation set, I wouldn’t know where their story was going to go, but rather either start way out, maybe in an area where I know the book is going to get to toward the end of it, start with that and then write to it. Or if I’m really confused, I’m very comfortable with just if I know certain scenes that are going to be in the book, certain events, then just take all the pressure off and write those scenes and don’t worry about where they fit. Don’t worry about how they’re assembled. So I’m trying to seduce or lure myself into the story without that feeling of, Oh my gosh, this task is so imposing. You know, I got on I’ve got 300 and some pages to go and the first sentences are really daunting. The other thing that I’ve always used to my benefit is I think it’s better if you can write a short period every day or five days a week than to have one weekend a month where you can just throw yourself into it. There’s a kind of inertia that can set in if the writing periods are too widely spaced. And so I think even a little writing regularly is probably more, at least for me, more successful than a big chunk of writing time once a month. So I write every morning, typically, even if I’m traveling from, oh, 8:00 to one, and then I’ll break and I’ll do marketing staff or emails or read the research or whatever, and then try to try to also fuze in enough time to get outside, you know, too, to be reminded of why I’m doing this.
Brilliant Miller [01:27:59] Yeah, that’s great. Do you ever. Or how have you overcome it? Because I understand one place that many writers get tripped up, and I certainly have myself as well, is that I’ll find myself when I maybe should be drafting that I get caught in this cycle of editing. And of course, editing could be an endless process. But how do you if you do, how do you separate and treat the drafting, which is the editing portion of a writing project?
Gary Ferguson [01:28:22] That is such an important question, and I was the worst at just getting lost in editing. I could spend a three-hour writing block. I’m going to start that again.
Brilliant Miller [01:28:33] All right. Sorry about that. No worries.
Gary Ferguson [01:28:39] Yeah. I could easily spend several hours just trying to tweak a couple of paragraphs. And this especially showed itself when I was trying to come up with the perfect metaphor. Writers are stock and trade is a metaphor. And so I would stare out the window for an hour waiting for just the right metaphor. The morning feels like or looks blank. And what I learned to do finally, because there was never a chance to get momentum going, the energy of the story itself that underlies what I was doing kept getting truncated by virtue of me spending all the time in the ditch trying to come up with a perfect metaphor. So what I learned to do is just put a cliche in after 5 minutes. If I didn’t have the right metaphor, put a cliche in with a couple of asterisks and move on just to keep that flow going. And then when you put your editor’s hat on, which is a very different relationship to your writing than the writing hat, then I could go back and examine those missing pieces and really see what might be the best solution. The other thing I tell writers is I found it early on. I don’t do it so much anymore. Very helpful once I thought I had something to a pretty good level. Read it out loud into a tape recorder or the voice memo on your iPhone or whatever, and then play it back to yourself. To me, writing is music. There’s a musicality to writing. And if you read it, you’ll not only hear awkward word choices and bad metaphors, but you’ll also hear whether or not it has that musicality to it, whether it breathes across several pages. And so that really was helpful to me.
Brilliant Miller [01:30:23] Yeah, I’ve heard that. I have a guest. I interviewed John Robertson who said that he actually paid someone in his neighborhood to come and read his manuscript to him and then possibly 8 hours. But that’s wonderful.
Brilliant Miller [01:30:37] And then another guest told me and I use this sometimes of on word, that word actually has a read-aloud feature.
Gary Ferguson [01:30:45] I’m not used to it, but I know it’s there. That’s a great idea. Yes.
Brilliant Miller [01:30:49] And of course, we know more and more we can dictate to our devices that to have them read our own text back to us and it’s still a little bit of a robotic voice, but you can speed it up or slow it down or change the voice and so forth. And I’ve got a few things that were that either just didn’t sound right or flat-out typos that I didn’t see reading it on the screen. Yeah, yeah.
Gary Ferguson [01:31:11] Yeah, yeah. You know what? One of the books, when you asked me what I was reading beside the Death of nature I’m reading right now, is I love Isabel Allende, and her latest novel is Violeta. And she uses semicolons, which some editors are really against, but she uses them as an artist. And when you read her writing, you can really see how the grammar she chooses. Is this going to be a period? Am I going to break with a couple of asterisks when I come to the end of a certain thought to let the reader exhale? Am I going to lengthen the pause with a semicolon? I mean, these sound like the minutia John Coltrane was talking about, but they collectively really add up and help you create the rhythm that your writing deserves.
Brilliant Miller [01:31:56] Yeah. And it’s all part of the style to write it. We all have or can develop or discover. It reminds me, I came across online a few months ago. Someone had taken work. These are all in the public domain, so a little bit older now. But he had removed all the words and left only the punctuation. And you can look at an entire book and I would have the title at the top and then just the punctuation on a whole poster and it was cool.
Gary Ferguson [01:32:22] Wow, that really has my mind going. I’d love to see that.
Brilliant Miller [01:32:27] It was pretty interesting. So, okay, so the last few things here, I’m going to turn a little bit to marketing promotion, sales of books, partly because somebody pointed out to me once that a New York Times bestseller, it doesn’t say New York Times best writer. It’s a seller, which is kind of interesting for a good point. And then the other thing is a teacher of mine, Jack Canfield, the guy who wrote Chicken Soup for the soul.
Gary Ferguson [01:32:53] Sure.
Brilliant Miller [01:32:54] He introduced me to the idea that if we write our books and then we just expect that someone else will sell them or that people will somehow find them, we’re likely to be sorely disappointed because most of us write for someone to read, write, and hopefully to have a difference in the world in some way. But with all that as background, I’ll just ask you, what have you learned about marketing and selling a book? That has helped you or that has been challenging for you? Like what? What have you discovered about book sales? Marketing?
Gary Ferguson [01:33:26] Well, I cannot agree more with your premise. The mistake that happens when you think of somebody else and what Jack was saying about somebody else taking responsibility for the dirty work of selling. I certainly thought the same thing through the first five or six books I did. I, I did the best I could do. And then another team member was supposed to come in and take over the responsibility for selling it. And everybody would be happy and the tide would rise and we’d all sail away. Not true. It was 30 years ago essential that the writer take responsibility for selling a book, and now it’s more essential than ever. There are very, very few writers left who get any kind of book tour. Things are done through social media. Things are done through interviews with, you know, various shows devoted either to the topic or to the subject of writing. To the extent, you can have your friends and your connections and contacts on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, share what you’re doing. The better off you are. And there are, of course, ways to boost those posts by paying for ads. But it all, to be honest, that level that has come on so strong through social media in the last 15 years has just left my head spinning. But the fact of the matter is, all of us if we believe that what we’ve done can be and perhaps should be shared. If we were writing so that people would read it, if that’s the act of community driving who we are as writers and I believe it is, then just swallow hard and learn those rudiments of social media. Do all you can to have a good web page. Make sure that people who are influencers or who are in the media get an opportunity kindly and with a short glimpse of what you’re doing and can become an advocate for what you’re doing. Because it’s going to be that community that either either allows the book to sell or doesn’t. This is not the time anymore. Where, again, New York publishers, which is mostly what I work with, they’re not taking out quarter-page ads in The New York Times to advertise mid-level writers. That’s just not not happening. And so more and more to the responsibility, there are things now called satellite radio tours that you can set up where you basically sit at your home and either through Zoom or a phone, get in touch with lots and lots of folks who are doing shows that are looking for guests, who are writers. There is there are media guides out there that can point the way to where those people are, where those shows are, just like where to sell your books and where to sell your magazine. Articles can be supported by books like The Writers Market and the Writers Handbook. Thousands and thousands of potential markets in those handbooks. So become familiar with those things put those on your shelf and use them often.
Brilliant Miller [01:36:29] So thank you for that. Thanks for breaking that down. I would just ask you as maybe a final question, what advice or encouragement would you leave people listening with that would help them either develop the momentum that we’ve talked about or get unstuck if they are stuck or just begin if it’s only a dream they’ve been hearing. What do you say to people to help them get their own projects across the finish line?
Gary Ferguson [01:36:55] A couple of things. I heard a lovely comment by a woman writer who I met who declared, and I think it’s true. The first draft of anything is crap.
Brilliant Miller [01:37:09] Okay?
Gary Ferguson [01:37:09] And it doesn’t matter if you’re Mark Twain or if you’re Terry Tempest Williams or who you are, it’s going to be not that good. So I acknowledge that because I think sometimes, especially when you’re first starting out as a writer, what’s in your head is so beautiful, and what lands on the screen is so mediocre at best. But that’s part of the process. Good writing is good editing. So really devote yourself to going back carefully, patiently, and editing and make that mediocre writing good. But don’t expect it to come out good in the first place. The other, a bit more philosophical thing I’d say is Robert Frost once said an interesting thing to me. He said, Most of the changes we think we see in society are just old truths coming in and out of favor. I think writers are about telling truths that come in and out of favor in their lives. A lot of what you write over the course of your life is going to be about what is most true to you. What elicits the most passion and commitment in you? Enthusiasm. And so the more you can really be with yourself and come to know yourself and to get in touch and welcome, embrace those truths. I think the more power you’re going to have in your writing. But also the more clear it will become. How can I pick a project? How can I define a project that will be valuable out there in the world? The more you know what’s in here, the more likely you are to pick a path that will link it to two other people.
Brilliant Miller [01:38:50] That makes sense. That makes sense. Awesome. Well, Gary, I have very much enjoyed our conversation today.
Gary Ferguson [01:38:57] Me, too, Brilliant. Thank you.
Brilliant Miller [01:38:59] Yeah, I loved reading The Master Lessons of Nature. So thank you for that. And I’m looking forward to sharing this conversation with my community. Okay. Awesome. Well, thank you so much.
Gary Ferguson [01:39:10] I look forward to the time we connect again next.
Gary Ferguson [01:39:13] Sounds great. Be well. Take care.